Lowell Sun wins appeal on cop’s records

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By Tom Zuppa, assistant managing editor, The Sun, Lowell, Mass.


In early January, Tyngsboro police Officer Ronald Goulet resigned in the middle of a closed-door disciplinary hearing before the Board of Selectmen. No one would say what he did, or why he quit.

 Personnel records of public employees in Massachusetts are private, with one very large exception: A judge ruled in 2003 that police internal-affairs investigations are public, because confidence in a police force outweighs an individual’s right to job privacy.

 The investigation was eye-opening. Based on residents’ complaints, the police chief ordered a GPS installed on Goulet’s cruiser. A two-week probe showed that his cruiser spent as much time parked near his home as it did patrolling the streets overnight. It also showed Goulet did not answer dozens of radio calls, which were picked up by other officers. The report also squelched rumors about where Goulet may have been during his “off” hours.

 The Sun asked for the Goulet investigation two days after he quit; it’s investigatory material and not public, we were told. We appealed to the Secretary of State’s office, which ruled in our favor 10 weeks later.

 But most jaw-dropping was the reason why Tyngsboro officials were tight-fisted with clearly public documents: The town agreed to release information only under order by the attorney general or secretary of state.

In other words, the town and police made a deal to follow the law only if compelled.

Public officials use this tactic all too often: Deny access to records, and place the employee’s rights and town’s reputation before the public’s right to know.

In the past two years, officials in Groton and Tewksbury stalled The Sun’s requests for access to internal-affairs reports. In both cases, the state sided with The Sun.

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